Your Schools

Better schools in Raleigh than in CMS? Not so fast

Kayle Burriss celebrates her June graduation from East Mecklenburg High.
Kayle Burriss celebrates her June graduation from East Mecklenburg High. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

“There are no bad schools in Raleigh.”

I’ve heard that statement at recent gatherings to discuss student assignment, diversity and resegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. It refers to the subtitle of a book extolling Wake County’s efforts to preserve racial and economic diversity.

Wake’s situation has gotten more complicated since “Hope and Despair in the American City” was published in 2009. But there’s no doubt that CMS has far bigger issues with concentrations of poverty and racial isolation, conditions that are linked across the country to academic failure.

So it might surprise you to hear that last year black and low-income students in CMS were more likely than their counterparts in Wake County to pass state exams and graduate. Or that the same is true when you compare white students from both districts.

District averages tell a different story. Because Wake is richer (38 percent student poverty in Wake vs. 58 percent in CMS) and whiter (48 percent in Wake, 30 percent in CMS), its overall numbers tend to be higher. Race and family income don’t determine an individual’s chance of success, but on a large scale they’re a strong predictor.

When I started looking at same-group comparisons a decade or so ago, Wake was flat out trouncing CMS. Black, Hispanic and low-income students in CMS were trailing their counterparts in most of the state, not just in Raleigh.

That began to change by 2007. After concerted efforts to boost high school achievement, CMS scores rose while those in Wake and many other districts stayed flat or sagged.

And Wake has started to look more like Mecklenburg, demographically and politically. Both counties have seen steady growth, especially in the Hispanic population, and rising poverty. Wake’s frustrated suburbanites led a push to overturn the student assignment plan that capped poverty levels and bused students to maintain balance.

Today both districts are reworking their approach to student assignment, and both seem to be moving toward using school choice to encourage diversity.

When you compare 2015 test scores and graduation rates broken out by race and income, the districts look similar. Sometimes Wake comes out ahead, sometimes CMS, usually by small margins either way. The one exception is Asian students, who consistently log better scores in Wake. That might reflect educational tactics there, though I suspect it’s more about Raleigh’s universities and technology companies attracting well-educated and highly motivated families from that part of the world.

None of this is to throw cold water on the people who want to make CMS schools more diverse. Concentrating the most disadvantaged students in urban schools creates a raft of challenges. Would any of us set out to design schools like this, or choose to send our kids there?

There’s also a good case to be made that students of all backgrounds benefit from getting to know people who aren’t like them. As the “no bad schools in Raleigh” book explains, there’s a lot more to public education than test scores. Student assignment policies both reflect and shape “social capital,” from civic engagement and community pride to neighborhood health and economic vigor.

I am suggesting that we can’t drive up the road for easy answers. The numbers show that both districts face serious challenges, with fewer than half of the black, Hispanic and low-income high school students in either district earning college-ready scores.

As CMS seeks better strategies for student assignment and academic excellence, the work ahead is complex. Here are some suggestions for people who want to get serious about it.

▪ Try to break free at 4 p.m. on Oct. 27 for a special forum on “building collective commitment” at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, 3400 Beatties Ford Road. The school board has invited city and town officials, as well as the public, to hear a presentation on demographic changes in North Carolina and Mecklenburg County from James Johnson of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. He spoke last year and board members have been buzzing about it ever since.

▪ Read “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte,” by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Stephen Samuel Smith and Amy Hawn Nelson. Even if you don’t agree with the authors’ perspective, you’ll get a sense of how CMS got where it is.

▪ Check out the research links at OneMeck.org. Same deal: Even if you don’t share the group’s commitment to school diversity, you’ll know more about where they’re coming from.

▪ If you want to do your own data-diving, you can find academic reports at www.ncpublicschools.org/accountability/reporting/ and demographics at www.ncpublicschools.org/fbs/resources/data/.

▪ Listen to “This American Life: The problem we all live with,” a two-part exploration of school integration that came out this summer. In the second part, you’ll hear a detailed account of how Hartford, Conn., is trying to carry out a magnet-based diversity plan. (Go to thisamericanlife.org and search for “The problem we all live with”.)

You could skim the transcript of that radio report, but for the first part, you’ve got to listen. Listen to parents in suburban St. Louis, scared and defensive about changes to their school. And listen to the heartbreak of a teenage girl seeking a chance at a better school and hearing the hurtful stereotypes.

It’s a powerful reminder: None of this is really about numbers. It’s about children.

How CMS, Wake stack up

These 2015 numbers were recently released on four-year graduation rates, students earning passing scores on state End of Course exams and students earning ACT scores that would qualify for admission to the UNC system.

All

Asian

Black

Hispanic

White

Low-income

Graduate on time

CMS

88.3%

92.3%

86.8%

79.6%

93.8%

83.1%

Wake

86.1%

92.7%

78.9%

73.7

92.6%

74.1%

Passed state exams

CMS

62.6%

75.1%

46.6%

51.3%

87.5%

47.3%

Wake

69.4%

87.5%

44.0%

52.3%

84.0%

43.4%

ACT proficiency

CMS

58.3%

66.3%

38.3%

44.9%

86.7%

40.3%

Wake

70.0%

86.3%

38.5%

49.0%

85.7%

39.6%

Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction

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